THE 4% RULE IS ONE of the best-known ideas in personal finance. But is it really a rule? And does it apply to you?
Let’s start at the beginning. The father of the 4% rule is a financial planner named William Bengen. Back in the early 1990s, he became frustrated with the prevailing rules of thumb for retirement planning. He found them too informal and set out to develop a more rigorous approach. The question he sought to answer: What percentage of a portfolio could a retiree safely withdraw each year?
I RECENTLY WROTE about how my wife and I downsized to our beach home. It had long been a dream of ours and we’re thrilled it came about. Right after the move, we climbed on a plane and experienced another common dream of retirees—living in an exotic tropical paradise.
We visited our son, daughter-in-law, grandson and their Boston terrier in Nosara, Costa Rica. Nosara is a beautiful village and resort area carved out of the jungle on Nicoya Peninsula,
I JUST REVIEWED my Social Security earnings record. It brings back memories. For instance, it shows I earned $105 in 1959 when I was age 16 and working after school in the city library for 75 cents an hour. I’ve paid Social Security taxes every year since, though in 2020 they were based on earnings of just $2,333 and I was counted as self-employed. That darn blogging money.
Here’s something to put matters in perspective: Over 64 years,
MY RELATIONSHIP with money is complicated. I want to get the best value for our dollars, so I spend a lot of time comparison shopping. Other people hunt for bargains. I go on long safaris.
My frugality and comparison shopping have served Jim and me well. In our double-income household, we managed to save 50% of our combined pay—basically living on one income and saving the rest. That, coupled with some lucky breaks, propelled us to early retirement.
A 156-YEAR-OLD newspaper company filed for reorganization in bankruptcy court last year. The company said it just couldn’t come up with the millions it owed to its pension plan. Some 24,000 current and future retirees were promised payments from that plan—and I’m one of them.
This is the story of what happened to our benefits after the pension plan failed.
For 10 years, I was lucky enough to cover Washington, DC, as a newspaper reporter.
MANY PEOPLE TELL ME they need, say, $1 million or $2 million to retire, effectively equating retirement with a dollar amount. But there’s more to retirement than just the financial side. It’s a major turning point that will alter virtually all of our priorities—how we spend our days, how we interact with loved ones, what we care about and what we hope to achieve.
Even if we focus only on the financial side, we can’t sum up retirement with a single number.
LEAVING BEHIND fulltime work leaves a void. How will you fill it? In my semi-retirement, I’ve found four communities.
I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, but moved throughout my career. Fifteen years ago, I returned to Texas and—as part of my relocation—”pioneered” working from home. I’ve spent the past few years reconnecting with classmates from elementary school through high school, meeting them individually for lunch and using Facebook to arrange annual mini-reunions. I’ve known some of these folks for more than 55 years.
RETIREMENT AT FIRST is fun and feels pretty good. No more setting an alarm. No more dealing with a long commute. No demanding work schedule that leaves you exhausted most evenings.
Best of all, no one is telling you what to do. You can sleep in or travel to all those places you dreamed about. You can golf as much as you like or spend lots of time with the grandkids.
You’re as free as a bird.
LIKE MANY BABY boomers, my wife and I have watched our parents go from total independence to assisted living to death. We’ve been thankful that, at key moments, they made the difficult decisions themselves, without our prompting. These decisions included when to give up the family home in favor of moving to a continuing care retirement community, when to give up their car and driver’s license, and when to move to assisted living.
Our parents were organized and realistic people who trusted us to act for them in increasingly significant ways as they moved from one stage to the next.
RETIREMENT CAN BE the best time of our life—but only if we manage it right.
I recently passed a milestone: the three-year anniversary of the day I left my 40-year banking career. What have I learned over the past three years? I’ve found that a good retirement has three key elements: sound finances, wellness, and intentionality about managing time.
1. Finances. I watched some of Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting last month. As usual,
I JUST HAD MY SIXTH bicycling accident—which made me think about my investment portfolio.
I started cycling seriously in 2005, when foot problems forced me to cut back on running. That was the year I bought my “starter” bike—part aluminum, part carbon—purchased for $1,000 from a bike shop that was going out of business. Within a few months, I added the special pedals with the shoes that clip in.
Early on, I had my fair share of embarrassing falls,
I REGULARLY READ blogs written by those who retired early to a life of ultra-frugality. Do you consider yourself careful with money? Even so, I doubt you’d enjoy the frugal lifestyle of many followers of the FIRE (financial independence/retire early) movement.
I certainly wouldn’t. If I go on another cruise, I won’t be booking an inside cabin. I can’t imagine my wife buying clothes from a thrift store and wearing them for the next 10 years.
MY MATERNAL grandmother just celebrated her 100th birthday. She still lives a mostly independent life, residing in her own apartment within a senior living facility. She walks to the dining room three times a day for her meals, does her own laundry and is always willing to talk about current events.
At age 54, I often try to imagine what it’ll be like if I live to the same age as my grandmother. The process usually overwhelms me with angst.
RETIREMENT MAY MARK the end of fulltime work—but that doesn’t mean we should stop working on our finances. Even after we quit the workforce, there’s much we can do to strengthen our retirement plan and, indeed, that may be necessary if we find we’re drawing down our nest egg too quickly.
Are you concerned that you might outlive your savings? Consider these six financial tweaks:
1. Work part-time. I’ve heard folks claim that if you’re still doing some work for pay,
MY FATHER LOATHED the idea that he would spend his final years in a nursing home. In the end, he never had to confront that possibility: At age 75, while riding his bicycle, he was struck and killed by a speeding car.
Still, I think often about his reluctance—because I share it. Despite exercising every day, I know I’m not as flexible or as fast as I once was, and it takes longer for the stiffness in my muscles to ease each morning.